Brook stood beneath the awning of a stand selling beaten paperbacks and other nicknacks most would find uninteresting. Of course, when you were in Phoenix, Arizona at the height of summer, one would put up with a lot to get out of the blistering sun. Not that it applied to everyone as was testament to the absent stall owner. Either he trusted Brook not to steal his wares, or the events of five years ago were still fresh in his mind.
With a sigh, Brook put the down the book she was reading and glanced around. Not far away was the Steele Indian School Park. Always busy at this time of year, it was packed with people and more were streaming in with every minute. Families milled about, looking for stakes to claim. Charcoal, beers, and grills were so prevalent that Brook thought every store in town had been robbed. That was the Fourth of July for you.
“Day dreaming are we?”
Brook turned to see Gale, her brother, standing beside her. At twenty, he was two years younger and a foot taller, forcing Brook to crane her neck to look at him. The same green eyes, blonde hair, and pale skin instantly pegged them as siblings.
“The show won’t start for a couple more hours,” Brook replied. “I’m just trying to stay busy. Besides, not all of us can hit on every girl in the state.”
“Hey! I don’t hit on every girl,” Gale said with mock indignation. “I’m sure there’s at least one in Tulsa I haven’t sweet talked.”
Brook chuckled, eliciting a grin from her brother. He glanced over her shoulder and froze. Within a second his face went from mirth to fury. Brook turned around and quickly found the problem.
Lounging against a fence was an individual Brook knew all to well. Stevie Ray was a high school dropout who’s stained t-shirt and torn jeans made him look like the grease monkey he was. Book had barely known Stevie and would’ve forgotten that he existed if he hadn’t gone to the police, claiming he’d heard Brook asking the thin air to ‘not kill her parents’ a week before they died in a car wreck.
As a result, Brook had been arrested and charged with murder. She was eventually released–Stevie’s statement was all the State ever had–and all charges were dropped. Despite that the stigma had lingered.
Stevie continued to glare at them. Brook smiled and waived as if they were best friends. Stevie’s face darkened. He spun around and walked away, disappearing into the crowed.
Gale crossed his arms. “That was interesting. Why on earth did he turn tail?”
“We had a conversation the last time he ambushed me outside my job.” Brook ran a hand through her hair. “Do you remember Calvin?”
“Stevie’s work buddy who overdosed,” Gale asked. “Sure. What about him?”
“Not much,” she replied. “I simply told Stevie that if he harassed me again, an anonymous tipster would suggest that the police look at him as part of their drug ring investigation.”
Gale nearly spluttered. “Stevie is part of the drug ring that’s been going through town?”
“Not part of,” Brook clarified. “He runs it. I’ve got to give Stevie credit, he’s smarter than I imagined.”
“And let me guess.” Gale turned to face her. “Calvin’s ghost told you.”
“Correct.” Brook shrugged. “Spirits can be useful. You can’t see them as well as I, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t learn from them.”
“Except that I’m in permanent denial,” he joked. “If I can’t see them then they don’t exist.”
Brook shook her head hopelessly. Her brother’s interest in the spirit world was about as strong as his abilities. For Brook, it wasn’t much of a choice. After all, it’s hard to ignore the dead when they were as real as the living, especially when they made themselves difficult to ignore.
An annoying two tone melody weaved its way up the street, drawing their attention. An ice cream truck had stopped just up the road, a throng of kids already surging around it.
Gale glanced at his sister. “Want some?”
“Sure.” Brook gave him a playful shove. “But don’t take all day. I want a cone, not a milkshake.”
Her brother chuckled before taking off. Brook turned around and picked up another book, skimming the pages as she waited.
Brook had been able to see the dead ever since she was five. It wasn’t terrifying like most people would expect. Unlike the knock-off horror movies, a person’s soul didn’t reflect their physical state when they died, which was a relief. The reapers–who showed up prior to a person’s death–were creepy enough without souls being smeared with blood and gore.
A sudden chill swept through Brook’s bones, causing her to shiver despite the sweltering heat. She whipped around and scanned the area. Most of the people had made their way from the street and into the park. The last of the ice cream truck crowed was dispersing as well. Brook spotted her brother–a cone in each hand–making his way toward her.
A shadow near the truck drew her attention to a black specter hovering near the engine. Little more than a shadow in the shape of a figure, it had no identifiable features save for long, bone-white hands that hung loosely at its side. Brook watched as it stretched out one of its hands, reaching inside the vehicle’s hood.
The engine roared to life, startling people nearby. The truck shot forward with a tire-shooting screech. It surged straight down the road.
Straight toward Gale.
Brook dashed forward. People screamed as they dove out of the vehicle’s path. Her brother–who’d been heading towards her–disappeared behind a sea of people. When she could see him again, Gale was getting to his feet. He glanced up, saw her running towards him, and glanced back.
Brook reached Gale and shoved him out of the way. The truck slammed into her with a loud crunch, sending her flying. She hit the ground and rolled, her bones snapping in rapid succession. Her head slammed into the pavement and everything went black.
Brook felt cold. Not the sensation one got when standing outside on a chilly evening, but the bone freezing cold of the grave. Despite this, and the fact that she could see nothing, Brook was calm. She knew that she was dead. Death was familiar to her. She wasn’t afraid.
“Not afraid,” a voice asked. “Now there’s something I haven’t heard in awhile.”
At the sound of the voice Brook stood, or at least, thought she did. It was hard to tell up from down when surrounded by impenetrable darkness. Despite that, Brook sensed something, a presence that studied her. After awhile the presence chuckled.
“I’ve been here since the dawn of time, seen many things, and yet a mortal staring me down is impressive. You’re an unusual person, Brook Jackson.”
“How do you know my name,” she asked.
“I know you’re name because I know you,” the voice replied. “I was there when you were born. I’ve been with you as you aged. And I was there when you had you’re last moment of life.”
“Death,” Brook stated.
Around her the darkness warmed and she sensed Death’s approval.
“You were always a bright one, even if you’re actions were foolish.”
“What do you mean,” she demanded.
“You’re brother,” Death stated. “You denied me his soul.”
“I saved his life,” Brook countered. “I made a worthy sacrifice.”
“True, but one that was in vein.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t seek out people’s souls on a whim,” Death explained. “Your brother is slated to die, sooner rather than later, and I will see it through.”
Fear shot through Brook. With her parents gone, Gale was all that mattered to her, all that she strove to protect. But Brook was dead and she couldn’t defend him from beyond the grave.
“That is, of course, unless you want to make a deal.”
Brook’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of deal?”
Death’s presence brushed against her face, caressing it like a lover. Brook stood absolutely still as Death whispered in her ear.
“All souls belong to me,” it said softly. “But some escape, even when they’re already in my grasp. What’s worse is that my reapers are incapable of touching them until they’ve lived well past their time.”
“And what does this have to do with me,” Brook demanded.
“I’ve found a way to claim these souls that are denied to me,” Death explained. “Individuals like yourself, who died in anothers stead are a grey area between my domain and that of life.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m able to raise them into a partial existence,” Death explained. “When I do they gain the ability to collect these souls. They are my menitim, my assassins, and they insure that I’m no longer denied.”
“And you want me as one of your assassins.”
It was a statement. Death wrapped itself around her.
“I’ve a opening for a volunteer,” it purred. “Understand, it will be a semblance of life, not life itself. You’re dead and your soul will remain here. Overtime you’ll lose your humanity, forgetting everything about the life you lead.”
“And if I agree,” Brook asked. “Will you let my brother go?”
“He’ll be an old man before I claim his soul.”
Brook thought about it, although there wasn’t much to consider. She could either agree, sparing her brother a premature death, or refuse, and face her parents in the afterlife, knowing that their son would soon join them. Brook closed her eyes, taking a deep breath.
“I agree to your terms,” she said quietly. “Brook Jackson shall serve you.”
“Brook no longer exists,” Death replied. “You’re Sin, my thirteenth assassin.”
Death seized Brook, wrapping itself around her body. It flowed into her mouth, tunneling through her. Each place it touched deadened as if it had suddenly atrophied. It stopped at the center of Brook’s being, at what she instinctively knew to be her soul. After one, heart stopping moment, Death yanked it out.
Brook screamed. Not from pain, but from the unnatural void that filled her, spanning her entire being in an attempt to deprive her of everything she was. Brook shuddered, fighting against the sensation. The emptiness abated slightly, solidifying the hold it had. Then it surged, taking Brook by surprise. It tore through her body and poured itself into her mind. It sifted though her memories, stripping them one by one, depriving them of there meaning. Her body began to shake. The cold she’d felt vanished, replaced by scorching heat.
Fire burst from Brook’s mouth, wrapping around her body. It enveloped her, becoming more painful than the void that filled her from within. When she thought she couldn’t endure it anymore, the void retreated to her core. The flames cut off, dropping her to the ground
Brook hit the concrete, scrapping her hands. She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision. Her entire body felt hollow, weightless, as if something vital was missing. Her skin burned as well. When she looked at her hands they seemed normal, but she could sense a terrible fire within.
Brook staggered to her feet and looked around. She was in a garbage strewn ally that she didn’t recognize. Flies buzzed over a nearby garbage bin, although she could barely smell it. The same went for the distant street where the sound of passing cars should’ve been louder than they were. Her senses had been dulled, Brook realized. She no longer had a connection to this world and, as a result, was more akin to a ghost.
A silver bell went off in her mind, causing Brook to look up. A reaper drifted into the alley, looking more substantial than she’d ever seen before. It didn’t speak, but its gestures were clear.
Time to get to work.